Should the N-Word Be Banned?

In a move designed to garner headlines instead of results, municipalities across the country, including the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners (BCC), propose criminalizing, albeit without penalties, the use of the n-word. Like so many other acts debated and passed by government bodies, this one will take up time, space and public interest, but will have no beneficial impact whatsoever on the lives of poor, black people.

Like every other word in any other language, the n-word is a string of letters combined to make a particular sound, which is associated with a specific meaning. This is not an attempt to minimize the importance, value and impact of words or language, and that goes double for this word. However, what makes this word so ugly and harmful is not the combination of letters or even the enunciation (either ending with "a" or "er"), it is the devastating history of actions and impacts associated with the word.

Let's be blunt. Nigger means lynching. It means hundreds of white people, including children, gathered to watch a black man, a human being, dragged, beaten, hung from a tree and cooked alive. It means grinding poverty. Today -- not 30 years ago, but today -- blacks are disproportionately poor, hungry and die of illnesses which do not kill whites. This is true all across planet earth and all over the United States. It means police harassment and brutality. Being pulled over by the police for lesser, or no transgressions; being shot 41 times after going for your wallet; it means a toilet plunger; it means a disproportionate number of black people arrested, convicted and imprisoned.

Why do other ethnic slurs, such as 'cracker,' fail to engender the same passion as the n-word? That's easy: there is no widespread association between those words and murder, torture, abject poverty, discrimination and other inhumane impacts. The word is highly problematic, to be sure, but the word is not the problem.

If all we had to do to end racism, sexism, poverty and oppression was to ban a few words, this would be a wonderful planet, full of happy people with a delightfully limited vocabulary. However, banning the n-bomb does not ban the racist collateral damage which that word has come to represent. And, in the final analysis, what is so harmful and degrading to the black community are the racist sentiments, actions and impacts, not the individual words which brutally encapsulate those sentiments, represent those actions and foreshadow those impacts.

This is not a defense of the use of the n-word, but it is a call to stop fighting for symbols as a means of drawing attention away from the fact that you are not fighting for anything of substance. If forced to choose between getting rid of the word and getting rid of the very real impacts and conditions the word represents, most sane and rational beings, of any race, would vote to keep the word. The truth is that if everyone stopped using the word tomorrow, we would still have poor, hungry, undereducated and unemployed black people living in squalid slums.

Society as a whole, and the black community in particular, must condemn and sanction people who use racial, sexists, homophobic and classist epitaphs. However, as it relates to racism, it is not the government's job to control what people say, it is their job to stop racist actions and correct or change the impacts of those actions.

Like other local municipalities, the BCC has no power at all over the use of this, or most other, words, but are spending valuable time, money and brain power on a fight which, at the end of the day, is symbolic at best and irrelevant at worse. What is so infuriating is that local governments do have the power to change the conditions which give the n-word such horrific value to this day, but are not trying to change the conditions over which they have power, only the symbols over which they have none. It is insulting to think that the government bodies contemplating a symbolic ban on this word, are the same ones which consistently divert tax dollars earmarked for the black community over to wealthy white business interests. I submit that banning the latter activity will do more to defend the integrity of the black community than banning the former.

If elected officials really want to defend the black community, they should:

  • Ban Poverty. Instead of banning a word, governments can end the degradation of the black community by banning poverty. Instead of stealing public money, feed and provide housing for the poor black people who should not be called by the n-word.

  • Provide jobs. Those who used the word in the past did not want to hire black people. Show your opposition to the word by providing jobs for those same black people.

  • Stop police brutality and the criminalization of the black community. Racists used the police to intimidate and attack the n-people, a practice which has not significantly abated.

  • End racist government policies. The only thing worse than being robbed by someone who calls you the n-word is being robbed by someone who calls you buddy. Don't just stop use of the word, stop the exploitation and oppression.

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